Norah O'Donnell On What It's Like To Cover A Disaster Like Harvey

Photo Courtesy of CBS.
Norah O'Donnell interviewing evacuee Michelle Lavan at a downtown Houston shelter.
Harvey is the first hurricane veteran CBS News reporter Norah O'Donnell has covered. The storm, which first made landfall in Texas Friday evening, brought devastating flooding to the city of Houston, and has left at least 20 dead and forced about 17,000 to evacuate, 13,000 of whom had to be rescued.
O'Donnell, a CBS This Morning co-anchor and a 60 Minutes contributor, has been reporting from Houston since Sunday. While there, she's made a point to speak with evacuees who were rescued and report on the conditions of the local shelters. That led her to ask some tough questions about whether Houston officials were prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.
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O'Donnell, a San Antonio native, is currently the only national morning show anchor reporting from the region. She spoke with Refinery29 on the phone from Texas to discuss her coverage of downtown Houston's main shelter and why there should be journalists on the ground reporting about the impact of Harvey.
Could you tell me about what you’ve been seeing and what people have been telling you?
"The hardest thing for me [Sunday night]... was to watch dump truck after dump truck with people in the back. We're talking about city dump trucks that usually carry dirt and sand, and instead, there were like more than 20 people in the back with babies and children, standing up or sitting down. They've been picked up on bridges, on the side of the road, and delivered to the shelter.
"You really get a sense of the severity of how this disaster affects people. And part of our reporting from where I was — downtown Houston, where there wasn't a great deal of flooding —was the conditions of many of those who had been rescued.
"The [George R. Brown Convention Center] was only prepared for 5,000 people. This is a city of 6.5 million; it's the fourth largest city in America. So one big question was why there was only planning for a shelter of that size in downtown Houston. Were they prepared? We saw that shelter grow in size [to] over 9,000 people trying to check in.
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After being on the ground for a few days, do you expect the situation to change?
"I think that some of our reporting that was done inside of the shelter exposing the lack of resources led to some changes. The mayor of Houston said last night, 'You know what? The conditions are going to improve.' They had clearly heard what's wrong, that officials there needed help, they were overwhelmed, so they were able to announce two more shelters in the downtown Houston area as of late last night. Overnight they were able to move about a thousand people into another shelter. That's pretty remarkable.
"There were not allowing [us] inside of the shelter. CBS News made a decision that we would go in with a small camera, and try, and ask people for permission. Michelle Lavan invited us to come and see where she was, she had six people in a small area sitting on the ground.
"[She] invited us in so we could report about how do these thousands of evacuees were surviving inside. And it was eye-opening. I'm a journalist, but as a human and as a mother, it broke my heart."
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Yesterday a video circulated of an evacuee who got really upset at a reporter. These people have undergone an unbelievable amount of trauma. How do you handle those interviews in a way that's respectful to your sources, but at the same, allows you to show what's going on?
"In a situation like that, I start walking and I start talking with people... I ask: How are they doing? What happened to you? Do you have what you need? And then I say 'I'm Norah O'Donnell, CBS News. Would you be willing to do an interview with me?' Some say yes and some say no.
"I never put a camera on someone without asking how are they doing. I took a picture yesterday of a woman named Ola. After I asked her how was she doing, she told me her story. I asked if she was willing to do an interview with me and she said no. I asked "Can I take a picture of you?" and she said yes."
"I am a human and a mom first, and a journalist second. I can't go inside that shelter and not feel very deeply for the people that are in a situation like that."
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Why do you think it’s important for journalists to be on the ground?
"We wouldn't realize the severity of this situation without journalists. And lawmakers wouldn't approve the money for disaster relief. Volunteers who show up to these shelters to lend their time, people dropping off blankets and towels — how did they learn about that? They learned about it because they were watching it on television.
"I think there's a public service element to journalism. And people are interested because they want to help. I think about it as bringing attention to some many who needed help and people answering that call."
In the last 10 years, you’ve covered other major news events — from the 2008 presidential election to recent terror attacks, such as Boston and San Bernardino. How has covering this historic natural disaster compared to those other reporting experiences?
"I've been a reporter for 20 years and this has been the first time I've covered a hurricane. It opened my eyes not only to what a hurricane can do to a city like Houston, but you also see the human suffering and the human generosity.
"People are suffering, and Americans are incredibly generous. The people who jump on their boats [to rescue others], the people who do whatever they can to help. That renews my spirit."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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